Spring Break in Southern Laos – Si Phan Don, Tat Lo, & Pakse

Hi everyone. Dave here. As you know, Stef typically writes these blogs, but she’s doing some work today (a primarily travel day for us), so she asked if I could fill in for her. For her most ardent fans, apologies in advance, but hopefully you’ll find my style palatable as well.

As you may recall, we’ve been to Laos before. When we first arrived in SE Asia in September 2013, we had to go to Laos to get our work visas for Thailand. We’re still not sure why they require you to go to a foreign country to get your work visa, but we weren’t complaining. The work visas are issued in Vientienne, the capital of Laos. But because we were already making the trip there, in typical Stave fashion, we decided to make a little vaca out of it and so we ended up visiting three cities (including the capital) our first time there. In addition to Vientienne (a nice cute, riverside town with not much going on other than a surprisingly eclectic assortment of international restaurants, in particular French bakeries which we would later learn is a staple of Laotian cuisine, likely a result of their French heritage), we also visited Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. The former city is famous (or rather infamous) for its river tubing scene (i.e., you rent inner tubes for the day and float down the river, stopping at various bars for drinks along the way; it was fun but not nearly as debaucherous as we heard it was a few years ago before they cracked down on it after some overzealous backpackers started drowning in the river) and the latter is a very cute French colonial riverside town with lots of temples, a great night market and a few nearby attractions (an overrated cave and underrated waterfall).

At the time, we also wanted to visit the South of Laos, in particular Si Phan Don, aka the 4,000 Islands, and a supposedly very cool/big cave (Kong Lo) in the center of the country. Unfortunately, it was the rainy season at the time and so the roads going from the North to the South were flooded. Thus, the 4,000 Islands were postponed. But fear not, one of the many virtues of our deciding to live in SE Asia is that we knew we’d have many more chances to return to these missed opportunities. And spring (aka midterm) break 2015 was exactly that chance. We toyed around with a few different ideas (returning to the Philippines but this time Palawan, returning to Borneo but this time Sarawak, returning to Indonesia but this time Komodo, returning to Vietnam to motorbike part of the Ho Chi Minh trail or hike in Sapa, and even trying to squeeze in Myanmar), but for various reasons (mostly cost, time and convenience), we decided returning to Laos to visit the 4,000 Islands made the most sense for us.

Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands):

Kayaking on the Mekong River in Si Phan Don.

Kayaking on the Mekong River in Si Phan Don.

Since the 4,000 Islands are located near Pakse in the southern part of Laos, and since Pakse is just a hop, skip and a jump away from Thailand, we figured the easiest way to get there would be to just get to Ubon in eastern Thailand (aka Issan), and then take a bus into Laos towards Pakse, ultimately ending in the 4,000 Islands. We had never been to Ubon before (we’ve been to the North and South of Thailand, but never East), so we figured this would also be the perfect time to check it out. We’d normally just take an overnight bus from Bangkok to Ubon (an 8-10 hour ride), but we found super cheaps flights on Air Asia (sshh, don’t tell our moms) for around $70 round trip, so that seemed too good to pass up.

We left on a Saturday morning and arrived in Ubon around 9am. Since we were flying out of Ubon, we figured we’d have to spend the night there on the back end so why not at least try to get to Pakse on the 1st day. However, after booking our flights (of course), I read that there’s typically only two buses from Ubon to Pakse each day, one at 9:30am and another at 3pm. Making the 9:30 seemed very ambitious, especially since I was checking a bag and especially since the bus station was 10 kilometers from the airport, but since we had all our luggage with us, going into Ubon for the day to see the town wasn’t really a great option either. So if we missed the 9:30, we likely would have ended up just waiting at the bus station all day for the 3pm, or maybe hire a taxi to take us to the border crossing (about 90 minutes away). But fortunately, somehow, we just made the 9:30. God must have been smiling on us when my bag came out 1st on the conveyor belt.

After a little hassle at the border crossing (the Laotian immigration officer wanted to charge us $10 more per visa for not having US dollars, but a nice Thai/American woman traded us her US money for our Thai baht so immigration officer be dammed!) we arrived in Pakse by noon or so. After a very local lunch (som tam, laab and sticky rice and sausage on a stick), since we were making great time, we decided to try to get all the way to the 4,000 Islands on our 1st night, and then we would just slowly work our way back towards Ubon by the end of the week. Little did we know, however, that what we thought would be another 2-3 hour bus ride from Pakse to the 4,000 Islands ended up being a 2-3 hour songteaw (aka jeepney or very large tuk tuk) ride with around 20 local Laotians. Welcome back to Laos!

After a nice drive (passing many cows, school children, and food vendors who bombarded us every time we came to a stop), we finally arrived at the pier around 5pm. From there, it was just a short 10-15 minute canoe ride over to Don Det, the most popular of the 4,000 Islands. Once there, we quickly (though probably too quickly) found a place to stay a couple of blocks from the main “beach,” and then went out to check out the main town. Within just a few minutes, we quickly realized the thing to do here was rent an inner tube, grab a beer and then float out into the water with said beer while enjoying the Laotian sunset. We were a little too late for the inner tubing our 1st night, so instead we just went for a quick swim and promised to return with the requisite inner tube/beer the following night (and likely the night after).

After returning to our abode, we quickly realized it wasn’t quite as nice as we first thought. As you know, Stef and I are not very picky about where we stay, but we typically try to stay clear of bungalows, as they’re typically uncovered which allow a lot of bugs (or sometimes even small mammals or rodents) in. I’m not sure why we thought this one would be any different, but after taking a closer look, we decided we needed to find a new home for the next few nights. After surprisingly getting our money back (about $7/night), we quickly found a much more suitable place for a whopping $10/night. After getting settled into our new home, we found a good Indian place (we were actually hoping for Laotian or fish but surprisingly Indian seemed to be the predominant food) for dinner and called it a night after a long day of traveling.

The next day we woke up, had a nice Western breakfast (muesli with fruit and yogurt and scrambled eggs with the famous Laotian baguette) and set out to do what almost everyone who comes to Don Det does at some point: rent bicycles and drive around the island. We started by driving to the French bridge at the bottom of the island which connects to another island. After paying the requisite toll to cross the bridge ($4 pp per day), we headed to our 1st of what would be many waterfalls over the next few days, Tat Somphamit. The waterfall was surprisingly huge (more wide than tall), but most amazing, it looked like something out of the movie Interstellar or Armageddon, or even sort of like Everest Base Camp. In other words, there were huge black/grey canyons that seemed to go on for ages, and each little canyon seemed to have its own set of waterfalls. Very cool spot and unlike any other waterfall we’ve ever seen.

After Tat Somphamit, we rode around for a little longer and we were debating trying to make it to the bottom end of the bottom island (about 4 kilometers more), but the roads were pretty terrible (loose gravel/rock) and just as we were trying to make our decision, we received a sign: one of Stef’s tires went flat. Since she couldn’t ride it any further, we had to walk it back to the bridge (about 30-45 minutes). Once there, we figured we could probably get someone to fix it. We paid about $1.25 each to rent the bikes for a day. We figured fixing the flat tire could cost us as much as $5 or maybe even $10. But in typical Laotian fashion, the local mechanic said he would do it for $1.25 (same price as the bike rental). I guess we should have known this after our last visit to Laos (recall we crashed a motorbike and ended up having to get the side mirrors replaced for a whopping $5 total). After getting her bike fixed, we decided it was time to head back to town and get an early start on our all-important afternoon activity (floating in inner tubes with beers). After a nice happy hour, we went out for another nice local meal (this time we were able to find our bbq fish).

The next day we did the 2nd most popular activity in the 4,000 Islands: an all day kayaking tour. We started at 8:30am with a nice breakfast (remarkably the same place we had gone for dinner the night before) and then did our 1st of three kayaking legs to another waterfall about an hour away. Not nearly as big or impressive as the one we had seen the day before, but the kayaking was fun. After a little swimming and a nice bbq lunch that was a little too soon after breakfast for our liking, we were back on river for leg 2 of the kayaking journey. This time, we had to go through some rapids which made it a little more exciting. After another hour or so more of kayaking, we then took a bus to what we thought would be our last stop of the day, another waterfall, this one supposedly the biggest in all of SE Asia, at least by volume (Khon Phapheng Falls). Frankly, it still didn’t look as big as the one we had seen the day before, but it was pretty big (it looked sort of like a mini Niagra Falls or Iguazu Falls, perhaps because like those waterfalls, we were standing in one country, Laos, but on the other side of the falls was another country, Cambodia).

After the final waterfall, we thought we were heading back to the town but shortly realized that we still had 1 final leg of the kayaking journey left (fortunately this time only 15-20 minutes). After another tubing/beer happy hour, we made the mistake of trying to ride our bikes back to the bridge for dinner on our final night in the 4,000 Islands. We quickly realized that was a mistake, however, after we got there and not only didn’t we find any restaurants that we liked (we could have sworn we saw a bunch the day before), but then it was too dark to ride our bikes home so we had to end up walking them (for the 2nd time in 2 days!). Fear not, we still had a nice final meal on Don Det, an all you can eat bbq with kebobs, rice, noodles, salad, fruit, etc.

All in all, the 4 Islands were a very chill place to spend a couple (or few at most) days. I’m not sure I’d make a separate trip to Laos just for it, but if you happen to be visiting Laos (or live right nearby like us), then it’s definitely worth a visit. The whole place has a very hippie culture, with most bars/restaurants selling “happy” versions of everything (eg, shakes, pizza, cakes, etc.). A couple of happy shakes, some inner tubes, and a couple of Beer Laos made for some very happy Staves for a couple of days.

Tat Lo:

After the 4,000 Islands, we had an extra day or two to play with before heading back to Pakse (the biggest city in Southern Laos) and then Ubon in Thailand. After reading through our guide book, we decided on Tat Lo, a small town about 2 hours NE of Pakse known to have, what else, some more great waterfalls. We were originally hoping to rent a motorbike from Pakse and drive there on our own, but when we came back from the 4,000 Islands, the bus station we got dropped off at (in typical SE Asian fashion, about 8 km away from the town) was the same bus station where you leave for Tat Lo, so we figured it was easiest to just go straight there (rather than taking a tuk tuk into town, renting a motorbike and then driving to Tat Lo, back past the bus station). After a couple of hours on the bus, we arrived in Tat Lo.

The town itself is about 2 km off the main road from Pakse, which we ended up walking. Once we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find a very cute town, with essentially one main street filled with cute guesthouses/restaurants. We found a place to stay just outside of the main drag (as we typically like to do) and then set out to find two of the three waterfalls the town is known for. The first one (Tat Hang) you can see from the bridge in town. The bridge (and the town generally) overlooks a cute little lake/river with countless farm animals (eg, cows, pigs, goats) and children frolicking about. The second waterfall (Tat Lo) is a 10 minute walk upstream and has pools/ponds of water where you can swim. I, of course, partook, along with some local kids who were jumping off the rocks into the pond. Stef, of course, did not. Just as we were getting ready to leave the 2nd waterfall, two huge elephants strolled up and took a bath in the same pool I had just swam in. Thank god I got there 1st:). After cleaning up, we went for a nice Laotian meal overlooking the river/lake.

The view was worth the hike!

The view was worth the hike!

The next day, we rented a motorbike and drove to the 3rd, biggest and final waterfall in/near Tat Lo, about 10 km away from the town. This waterfall (Tat Suong) was truly spectacular. It’s probably 100 meters high and very powerful. You can see it from two viewpoints, one from above at the top of the falls, and another from the side. But the best view required a hike down towards the base through the surrounding jungle. After a little urging and a few tears, I convinced Stef to do the hike with me. Though it was short (about 15-20 minutes each way), it was very steep and slippery. But once there, we were literally standing behind the waterfall, about halfway up it, on a 3 foot wide rock ledge. A little dangerous, but very cool. After spending another 15-20 minutes trying to figure out how to get down to the base of the falls where it looked like you could swim, we eventually gave up. I probably could have pushed on and tried to make my way to the base, but the trail looked suspect (or potentially non-existent) and I think I had already pushed Stef a little out of her comfort zone.

Pakse:

After biking back to town (with one more pitstop at the Tat Lo waterfall to take a final dip), we hopped back on a bus towards Pakse and were there by the late afternoon. After finding a cute little guesthouse (and splurging for a big room for an extra $3), we walked around near our hotel and were delighted to find a handful of very cute Western restaurants serving, among other things, great looking breakfasts and all sorts of good looking sandwiches on their famous Laotian/French baguettes. After a little further exploring, we also found the riverfront which had restaurant after restaurant of local Laotian places, most serving the famous Mekong river fish which we often see in Thailand but only rarely get (they’re a little expensive for Thai food and all the other Thai food is just so damn good!).

After cleaning up at our hotel, we headed back out to the river and had our last local Laotian meal. While we didn’t get the fish (the only places serving the fish weren’t very crowded for some reason), we found a very crowded/hopping place serving local food with great music too.

The next day, we had to get back to Ubon to catch a flight back to Bangkok the following morning. We were hoping to take a noon or so bus which would allow us to spend the morning in Pakse (Laos) and the afternoon in Ubon (Thailand) but sadly, we learned that the only buses going between the two left at either 8:30am or 3:30pm (it was a 3 hour drive). After much debate, we decided to take the 3:30pm mainly because we wanted to go for a run in the morning and we also wanted to have a nice breakfast/lunch at one of the aforementioned Western restaurants near our guesthouse. Plus, we figured we came all the way to Laos (and paid the visa, again), so why not spend the extra time in Laos. So that’s exactly what we did. It was a nice run and even better meal (steak and eggs on a baguette and Vietnamese meatballs also on a baguette, with an iced coffee and strawberry fruit shake). We spent our final couple of hours in Laos catching up on email and looking further into hotels for our Japan trip this summer.

All in all, we enjoyed Laos, but it’s not our favorite country by any means. The North (Vientienne, Veng Vieng and Luang Prabang) is better than the South (Pakse and the 4,000 Islands), primarily because of its landscape (the former is mountainous whereas the latter is flatter), but the country as a whole seems to be lacking something. And that something, in my opinion, is its own unique identity. In other words, it has a lot of French elements (its baguettes, Luang Prabang’s colonial feel) and also a lot of Thai elements (its two most popular dishes, som tam and laab, are Thai dishes), but nothing distinctly Laos. The food in particular really struck me as disappointing. While I love the French baguettes (something we rarely can find in Thailand), the local Laotian food is frankly lacking. And even their Thai imitations (som tam and laab) are not nearly as good as their Thai counterparts (though I do like the sticky rice, as opposed to ordinary rice, that they serve with their laab). In fact, of all the SE Asian countries we’ve visited (Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, even Singapore), it’s probably the least appealing food other than maybe Cambodia. But the people are very friendly and the cost of living/traveling is very cheap, so if you happen to be in SE Asia for an extended period of time, it’s definitely worth visiting, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a separate trip from outside of Asia unless you’ve already been everywhere else in SE Asia.

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3 thoughts on “Spring Break in Southern Laos – Si Phan Don, Tat Lo, & Pakse

  1. David, I think both of you have new career waiting for you when (or should I say if) you return to the states someday. And of course I am talking about “tour guides” for southeast Asai. I bet you could submit your blog to a travel company or a travel publisher and get it published. What a great companion it could be for others traveling in Asia. You’ve become experts in the area and have so many wonderful adventures to share with others, along with good suggestions and ideas for what and what not to do and see, where to go, etc.

    Like

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